We’re excited that Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota has announced that he will introduce in Congress the new “Protect Democracy From Criminal Corporations Act.” This bold new legislation is an important step toward undoing the damage of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and restoring control over our democracy. Corporations that have already committed major criminal felonies have no business interfering in our elections. While we continue the fight to keep all corporations out of our elections, we can start with keeping out the worst criminal offenders.
Some background: Until 2010, the federal government, and most states, prohibited corporations from spending money to influence elections. Citizens United (and its followup case American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, which applies to states) said that these laws violate the First Amendment. We’re dedicated to reversing those decisions through a constitutional amendment. But in the meantime, we’re also supporting innovative legislation to limit the damage of Citizens United. And this legislation—which we worked on with Representative Ellison’s office extensively beforehand—will take a chunk out of Citizens United, by keeping corporate felons out of our politics.
People convicted of felonies go to prison for years. Corporations charged with felonies usually negotiate a plea bargain or “deferred prosecution agreement,” pay a fine (which comes out of shareholders’ money), and then get right back to business. And increasingly, that business includes working the system to change the rules in their favor. So we see the astonishing spectacle of unrepentant repeat corporate felony offenders like Chevron and JPMorgan Chase pouring money into federal, state, and even city council elections. These corporations want something for their money. And by their disregard for the law, we know they’ll be willing to cross a line to get it.
That’s why Representative Ellison’s bill is such an important step forward. While we continue the fight to keep all corporations out of our elections, we can start with the worst criminal offenders. The bill prohibits any corporation that’s committed a felony related to dishonesty—including those settled by big-penalty deferred prosecution agreements—from spending money to influence federal, state, or local elections, for six years.
We’re proud to support Representative Ellison’s bill (and we thank our friends at Public Citizen for joining us in this support, and Free Speech For People law clerk Alex Macheras for help with legal research). This bill won’t solve everything that’s broken with our campaign finance system. But getting corporate criminals out of our elections is a good start.